Ace In The Hole

Year: 1951
Studio: Paramount
Director: Billy Wilder
Producer: Billy Wilder
Writer: Billy Wilder
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling

You might know Billy Wilder for classic screwball romantic comedies like Some Like it Hot, but this film is a blacker-than-black drama about the abuse of power afforded to the press, a refreshing change (even nowadays, half a century later) from the usual pro-media stance Hollywood takes.

Kirk Douglas is Chuck, a smart-mouthed former big city reporter who finds himself stuck in a flyspeck desert town in New Mexico. He talks his way into a job at the local rag even while rubbishing the place to anyone who'll listen, figuring it'll be his springboard back to the big leagues.

After much longer than he wanted to wait around, his big chance comes, his ace in the hole. A local man is trapped deep in a disused mine after a collapse, and while holed up in the local diner, Chuck knows if he can turn it into the human interest story of the decade he'll ride the story to the top again.

Through careful media management that spills over into outright interference of the rescue effort, Chuck turns the whole thing into a weeks-long circus complete with candy canes, rides and a sheriff just as morally compromised as Chuck is, desperate for re-election.

The whole time, the woman who might otherwise be Chuck's moral centre (Sterling) is trying to leave her boring life, like she has been even since before her husband got trapped.

When Chuck engineers a more convoluted but much showier rescue method than is necessary, he crosses the line from observer to enabler, and images and ideas will swirl through your imagination like Kevin Carter's picture of a vulture looking hungrily at a sick African child, making you wonder where the line is for a reporter to report rather than prevent suffering.

Sadder still, Leo – the poor yokel stuck in the mine – thinks Chuck is his friend after frequent visits to the site of the collapse, unaware the reporter is exploiting him to death.

It's a cautionary tale, and a solid one. You can ignore some of the dated elements like the slap Chuck gives Lorraine to keep her in line, but the spirit of the film is an urgent warning we still haven't learned.

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